ister Act came out exactly 26 years go, on May 29th, 1992, when I wasn’t quite five years old. I don’t remember the first time I saw it — though I’m pretty sure it was on VHS and not at a theater — and to be honest, I’m not clear why my parents let me watch it at all, let alone as often as I did. All I know is that I was glued to the Sister Act screen then and continue to be today.
For those not well acquainted, the film follows lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) as she witnesses a crime at her mobster boyfriend Vince LaRocca’s Nevada casino, flees the cronies ordered to “take care of her” and subsequently lands in protective custody, where she poses as a nun at a deteriorating San Francisco convent. This is a perfect solution in theory. You know, aside from Deloris’ long-held resentment toward Catholicism and, more specifically (as foreshadowed in Sister Act’s opening scene), nuns; her attachment to material, gastronomical and carnal pleasures; her natural star quality, which threatens to expose her whereabouts to Vince and co.; and the convent’s shrewd, easily threatened and silver-tongued Mother Superior (Dame Maggie Smith, A TREASURE), who takes special offense to such “a conspicuous person, designed to stand out,” as she describes Deloris upon her arrival. Eventually, Deloris and her sisters in the order connect over music as she reforms their once-tragic choir into a Pope-worthy spectacle.
The film is not without its problems. There’s the well-worn trope of a solitary black woman tasked with bettering the white women around her and the absence of even some small reckoning with the then-burgeoning allegations of widespread sex abuse in the Catholic church, to name a few. But there are also several reasons I’ve continued loving it into adulthood. For one, it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. The cast, not entirely surprisingly for a group of nuns, barely seems to think about men at all (except for, to quote Deloris, “The Big JC”) until they’re forced to outsmart and out-empathize a team of them during the film’s climax. And while in 2018, the Bechdel test can feel like a pretty low bar, I still struggle to think of any other mainstream movie featuring both a black woman in the top-billed slot and a supporting cast of middle-aged and significantly older women — meek women, fat women, handsome women, deaf women — who have distinct, non-sexualized personalities of their own.
And then, of course, there’s the art. The film’s unbridled early ‘90s-style medleys and montages are set to tracks originally recorded by Etta James, Mary Wells, Fontella Bass and other Motown and Chess Records chanteuses, and the fashion offerings are no less dynamic. In Sister Act’s opening 15 minutes or so, costume designer Molly Maginnis (who’d go on to outfit the similarly shimmery, shimmying cast of Smash) outfits Deloris in no less than:
- A gold-sequined, floor-length gown with a thigh-high slit and jagged illusion neckline and gigantic earrings to match.
- A sheer, silver-embroidered robe over an even sparklier lace minidress.
- A sculptural, raccoon tail-laced coat that screams “sexy Davy Crockett.”
- A gold lamé, paisley-print duster (which moves beautifully while outrunning bad guys) with a bedazzled, black-lace bodysuit; zip-up, leather-like underbust corset; tiny fuschia fanny pack and silky violet bra.
- A purple mink coat as integral to the film’s plot as it was to my early infatuation with a man-repelling aesthetic.
Maginnis is even meticulous about minor characters’ wardrobes, like the local cool girls draped in Neneh Cherry-ish doorknockers and TLC-reminiscent, graffiti-graced overalls. At the far less “conspicuous” end of the spectrum are the order sisters’ habits, which as a child I found fascinating for the same reasons I was later moved to salivation by Pierre Cardin’s graphic, geometric 1960s designs, and which I’ve since learned to view with a more complex appreciation.
What I mean is: As an extremely secular member of the SlutWalk generation, the concept of “modest” dressing can ring oppressive to my ears. But a scene in which the sisters divide and conquer a casino floor, anonymized by their robes, to confuse Deloris’ would-be assassins, resonates harder now than I could have imagined in my prepubescent life. Not because I’ve ever found myself on a bumbling hitman’s bad side (fingers crossed I never will), but because I’ve certainly craved escape from the larger population of men who take any opportunity to single out, objectify and harass women simply for being recognizable as such. Now, while I still aspire to Deloris’ body-hugging, decolletage-framing tastes and the bright, boyish style of the convent’s local girl gang, I can also recognize the liberation of dressing for invisibility.
Ultimately, that kind of nuanced understanding of seemingly “different” women is what the outwardly over-the-top Sister Act is about. Deloris, scarred early in life by the confines of religion, asserts herself in and makes peace with the order; the once-stuffy sisters, for their part, come to allow themselves the “sins” of dive-bar jukeboxes, artistic expression and ice cream straight from the quart container. The film’s axis turns less on redemption, in a religious or black-and-white sense, than on acceptance.
“Do you feel sometimes like you just have to be yourself or you’ll just burst?” Sister Mary Robert, the mouse-voiced youngest member of the order, asks Deloris early in her time at the convent.
“Yep.” Deloris smiles, resigned, from within the confines of a habit that is most certainly not her. “I do.”
I do, too, constantly and intensely. Some days being myself means a push-up bra and fantastical outerwear, and some days it means attempting to circumvent the male gaze in something long and shapeless. Praise be that to this day, Sister Act reminds me that I don’t have to choose.
Photos via (c) Buena Vista Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.